Vivienne Westwood: Fashion and Activism

Fashion Icon and Activist

Vivienne Westwood AW17 by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood began designing in 1971 along with her then partner Malcolm McLaren in London. At the time, they used their shop at 430 Kings Road, London, to showcase their ideas and designs. With their changing ideas of fashion came the change of not only the name of the shop but also the décor. It was in 1976 when Westwood and McLaren defined the street culture of Punk with Seditionaries.

By the end of the seventies Vivienne Westwood was already considered a symbol of the British avant-garde and for Autumn/Winter 1981 she showed her first catwalk presentation at Olympia in London. Westwood then turned to traditional Saville Row tailoring techniques, using British fabrics and 17th and 18th century art for inspiration.1989 was the year that Vivienne met Andreas Kronthaler, who would later become her husband and long-time design partner, as well as Creative Director of the brand. In 2004, the Victoria & Albert museum, London, hosted a Vivienne Westwood retrospective exhibition to celebrate her then 34 years in fashion – the largest exhibition ever devoted to a living British fashion designer.

In 2006, her contribution to British Fashion was officially recognised when she was appointed Dame of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Vivienne Westwood is one of the last independent global fashion companies in the world. At times thought provoking, this brand is about more than producing clothes and accessories. Westwood continues to capture the imagination, and raise awareness of environmental and human rights issues. With a design record spanning over forty years, Vivienne Westwood is now recognised as a global brand and Westwood herself as one of the most influential fashion designers, and activists, in the world today.

Vivienne Westwood World's End Store by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood


Worlds End is the original Vivienne Westwood boutique, formerly known as; Let it Rock, Sex, Seditionaries, and Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die.

Established in 1971, 430 Kings Road is where Vivienne, alongside the late Malcolm McLaren, who was managing the Sex Pistols at the time, showcased their ideas and designs.

At a time when London was at the forefront of cultural trends, they began designing and using fashion as a platform to make political statements and construct garments, developing the now trademark, unconventional design techniques.

The Worlds End collection still follows Vivienne’s ethos to create the look of an ‘Urban Guerrilla’- a rebel, sporting political slogans and original, statement clothing.

Google Art Camera; Gene Vincent leather ‘SEX’ skirt, 1974 by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (1974) by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLarenBritish Fashion Council

Gene Vincent 'Let It Rock' Top (1971) by Vivienne WestwoodBritish Fashion Council

Pirate look, AW81/82 by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Photograph by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Photograph by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Text from the Vivienne Westwood book by Claire Wilcox, first published by V& A Publications 2014

With the Pirate collection, Malcolm and Vivienne cast a new spell with swashbuckling clothes of highwaymen, dandies, buccaneers and pirates. Westwood began her technical research into historical dress in earnest; unlike McLaren, whose inspiration came from his travels round the world as well as from the street, she remarked: “My stimulus is always intellectual.”

It was at this point that she began to look at history for ideas and techniques. She started her research in the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert museum, looking at historical costume patterns in Norah Waugh’s book The Cut of Men’s Clothes. One of the first Pirate garments was the billowing unisex shirt “I started work on the Pirate collection utilising a shirt pattern that had been used for 500 years. It was the most traditional, ordinary kind of thing you could make. I made one up and thought; “Now I’ve got to start thinking what I can do with this,” like making one sleeve longer than the other. Then Malcolm came in and said: “It’s brilliant, use it as it is.” He was a great person for using and abusing ideas that already existed.” Westwood recalled: “When I did the Pirate collection I’d seen an engraving of a pirate whose trousers were too big and they were all kind of rumpled about the crutch…I wanted to do that, but I couldn’t pull that trouser off until I found a book that showed how people made breeches in those days, and I found that the shape of the trousers was quite, quite, different. Once I realised that, I got my look. I wanted that rakish look of clothes which didn’t fit.”

Westwood was intrigued by what had been deemed sexually attractive in the past and saw that in order to understand it she had to reconstruct the clothing faithfully. ‘‘I really got a breakthrough, because their priorities were totally different from our priorities: they didn’t want to cut a tight trouser that neatly defined the two cheeks of your bum. They weren’t interested in that. They were interested in sexuality in a totally different way. And I found it out by research really.’’

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren ‘Pirate’ AW81/82 invitation, photograph by Robyn Beeche by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Text from the Vivienne Westwood book by Claire Wilcox, first published by V& A Publications 2014

Although the Pirate clothes had already been on sale in World’s End, they were shown as the first collection on the catwalk at Olympia in Spring 1981 to the accompaniment of the cannon fire and McLaren’s rap music. The invitation depicted a young girl with gold teeth and nipples and rags in her hair wearing a ‘squiggle’ print shirt and holding a Sony Walkman, for McLaren had persuaded Sony to lend them personal stereos – the latest technology – for the show.

The Pirate collection, like punk, was unisex and it eschewed the masculine, fitted profile of the early 1980s, offering an alternative, ragamuffin look, flat shoes and layers. It entered the bloodstream of mainstream fashion immediately. The ‘eyeliner and ruffles’ of the New Romantic movement which became so popular at this time, as Boy George described it, was worn in clubs such as Steve Strange’s Club for Heroes, echoing the ‘Clothes for Heroes’ plaque outside Seditionaries’. For Westwood, Pirate was about a metaphorical escape from an island.

Google Art Camera; Keith Haring ‘Witches’ dress, AW83/84 by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and Wool Keith Haring Witches dressBritish Fashion Council

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren - Keith Haring collaboration dress from the Autumn-Winter 1983/84 Witches collection.

“I went to America to talk to Keith Haring and get some of his art, using it with fluorescent and dark backgrounds with hieroglyphics…space-invader type images. His work was like a magical, esoteric sign language.” - Vivienne Westwood

Sara Stockbridge in Harris Tweed crown from the Vivienne Westwood Autumn-Winter 1987/88 Harris Tweed collection, on the cover of i-D Magazine, August 1987 Issue (1987) by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: iD

Harris Tweed, AW87/88, by Vivienne Westwood, photograph by Cindy Palmano by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood


Text from the Vivienne Westwood book by Claire Wilcox, first published by V&A Publications 2014

Harris Tweed (AW87/88), named after the woollen fabric hand-woven in the Western Isles of Scotland and created from (Vivienne’s) flat in Clapham. The collection continued the childish look inspired by the Queen’s Princess coat and was reinforced by a chance sighting: “My whole idea for this collection was stolen from a little girl I saw on the tube one day. She couldn’t have been more than 14. She had a little plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket and a bag with a pair of ballet shoes in it. She looked so cool and composed, standing there. Everyone around her was being noisy and rowdy, but she looked quite serene. She looked lovely.”

Shown at Olympia in Spring 1987 to the accompaniment of classical music and traditional brass bands, Harris Tweed was Westwood’s first show for two-and-a-half years.

As it was a winter collection, Westwood included thorn-proof tweeds, gabardines and knits that are so suited to Britain’s inclement weather, produced in English mills and on Scottish looms. She paid homage to the tailoring traditions of Savile Row.

The collection was accessorised with Rocking Horse platform shoes, as the Mini-Crini collection had been, pearly queen hats and tweed crowns. Of the crown, Westwood said: ‘It’s comic but it’s terribly chic. I like to keep it on when I’m having dinner – like ladies who keep their coats on to take tea. It’s so English, yet terribly attractive.’ Westwood’s heroes had changed from punks and ragamuffins to the cheeky ‘Tatler’ girls wearing clothes that parodied the upper-class English – as epitomized by Westwood’s muse and model, Sara Stockbridge, with her blond pin-up looks.

Boucher Corset by Vivienne WestwoodBritish Fashion Council

Silk ‘Portrait’ Corset depicting ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ by Francois Boucher, AW90/91

As Valerie Steel wrote in The Corset, A Cultural History: ‘Once women no longer felt that they had to wear corsets – when the corset, in fact, was stigmatized – some women consciously chose to wear them. Now, however, the corset was worn openly – as fashionable outwear, rather than underwear. Long disparaged as a symbol of female oppression, the corset began to be reconceived as symbol of female sexual empowerment.’

Google Art Camera; Silk ‘Portrait’ scarf depicting the ‘Shepherd watching the shepherdess’ by Francois Boucher, AW90/91, by Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne WestwoodBritish Fashion Council


“I am very inspired by the 17th and 18th centuries. My favorite painters are Titian, Velasquez and also Vermeer. I particularly love 17th century Dutch painting. I visit the Wallace collection in particular for the 17th century, but then you have the three 18th century geniuses there also: Boucher, Watteau, and Fragonard. To look a painting is to enter a world. It’s an absolutely delight. The only place to find ideas is by looking at what people did in the past. It’s the way you can be original. You can’t be original by just wanting to do something. Nothing comes from a vacuum. It is impossible to be creative unless you have a link with the past and tradition. You cannot merely have a desire to create something and attempt to do it without learning from the techniques of the past. However, this is true for any discipline and not just fashion. Nobody can create a symphony or dance a ballet without studying the knowledge of the past in that particular art. You should constantly try to understand the world in which you live, from the perspective of the way people saw things in the past. There’s an understanding that you get from this.” – Vivienne Westwood

Naomi Campbell, ‘Viva LaCocotte’ AW95/96 by Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Fall 1995 (Front) by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Fall 1995 (Back) by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Dazed and Confused Vol II #63 July 2008 cover photograph by Oliviero Toscani (2008) by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

00's & ACTIVISM, Dazed and Confused Vol II #63 July 2008

Vivienne Westwood has always used her collections and catwalk shows as a platform to campaign for positive activism. She has spent many years tirelessly speaking out about the effects of climate change and over-consumption, and has mobilised international attention around ecological crusading. Vivienne compares the dire situation to battle: “It’s a war for the very existence of the human race. And that of the planet. The most important weapon we have is public opinion: go to art galleries, start to understand the world you live in. You're a freedom fighter as soon as you start doing that.”

Vivienne is a Trustee of human rights organisation Liberty and Patron of Reprieve. She has continually campaigned for the release of Leonard Peltier for many years and is also a campaigner for Amnesty International. As well as Human rights, Vivienne is passionate about the environment and actively supports the charity, in their efforts to save the rainforest and stop climate change, as well as supporting the Environmental Justice Foundation and Friends of the Earth - amongst others.

Vivienne is also an ambassador for Greenpeace and in 2013 designed their official ‘Save the Artic’ logo and in 2015 launched a global campaign to stop drilling and industrial fishing in the area. Vivienne has worked with the United Nations, Environmental Protection Agency to re-establish the fragmented forests of Europe, and has also joined forces with the International Trade Centre- a joint body of the UN, since 2011 to produce bags through their Ethical Fashion Initiative. The programme currently supports the work of thousands of women from marginalized African communities and empowers informal manufacturers and craftspeople to enter the international value chain - providing an income for some of the poorest people in the world. The collections are created using recycled materials from slums and land fill and the income helps to stop the need to continue deforestation in the area. Vivienne’s monthly diary and more information on her concerns, passions and campaigns can be found at

Dazed and Confused Vol II #63 July 2008 photograph by Oliviero Toscani by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood Autumn-Winter 2011/12 Campaign by Juergen Teller by Juergen TellerOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Ethical Fashion Initiative

The Vivienne Westwood Ethical Fashion Initiative Bags are “Handmade with love” in Nairobi. Produced since 2010 in collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) of the International Trade Centre – a joint body of the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) –which currently supports the work of thousands of women micro-producers from marginalized African communities. The EFI empowers informal manufacturers and craftspeople to enter the international value chain - providing an income for some of the poorest people in the world. This promotes the growth of sustainable business in place of aid dependency and creates stability among these impoverished communities. This is not charity, this is work.

Since 2015 the Vivienne Westwood collection has been produced through a local social enterprise in Kenya- Artisan. Fashion. Originally set up by EFI, this enterprise is now a completely independent and successful business due to the continued workflow from Vivienne Westwood. They specialise in the production of high-end accessories with community groups of artisans. Styles created use recycled canvas, reused roadside banners, unused leather off-cuts, and recycled brass cast in Kibera slum (Nairobi’s biggest), where discarded metal like padlocks and car pieces are collected then melted down. The collections include a range of bag styles for men and women, including unisex rucksacks, totes, patchwork drawstring bags and Maasai hand beaded clutches and key rings, and are inspired by the African fabrics and surroundings they are produced in.

Thanks to the great success of the collections so far, the Ethical Fashion Initiative has sustained its success and is providing more and more employment for impoverished communities through sustainable businesses like Artisan. Fashion who now independently produce the Vivienne Westwood Africa bag collection. NOT CHARITY. JUST WORK.

Vivienne Westwood Autumn-Winter 2011/12 Campaign by Juergen Teller by Juergen TellerOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood Autumn-Winter 2011/12 Campaign by Juergen Teller by Juergen TellerOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

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Vivienne has also written her ideas in a Manifesto titled Active Resistance to Propaganda. The AR Manifesto evolved through Westwood’s fashion shows which she uses as a platform for her cultural and environmental concerns. It is a call to become more cultivated and in doing so gain the strength and wisdom needed to ‘Get A Life’ now and save the planet for future generations.

Dame Vivienne Westwood by Ki PriceBritish Fashion Council

+5°MAP/ ROT$

Vivienne Westwood has always used graphics within her collections and catwalk shows to promote political, social & environmental activism. The map is Vivienne’s graphic representation of NASA's projection of the effect of climate change on the world should the earth’s temperature rise to 4 degrees of more- which will be unstoppable if we reach +2 degrees. The green represents inhabitable land and the red represents uninhabitable land.

“Global warming is at the tipping point. If we go past it, we can’t stop it. All the methane kicks in. We’re there right now. We have to stop it! This map is the world at 5 degrees. If you draw a line parallel with Paris, everything below that is uninhabitable. This means by the end of this century there will only be one billion people left. Our politicians, they are preparing for this. They are not trying to stop it, they are preparing for it. They just talk about how they going to deal with it. How can you deal with it? It’s going to be absolute horror. The rainforest will be gone, the oceans will be dead there will be no water. Everybody from Asia, Africa, South America will be on the move to this small part of the world that will be left. You’ll have warlords, corpses, you’ll have absolute horror and these idiots talk about the fact that they are going to deal with it, they accept it. The point is, to STOP IT! We have no choice between a green economy and mass extinction. But we are the people. We can do it! We here are the voice of the people – we’ve taken responsibility. That’s why we’re on this march. And so it’s very easy to do. Be specific!” - Vivienne Westwood

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Vivienne inaugurated the 'Climate Revolution' at the 2012 London Paralympics closing ceremony and continues to rally charities, NGO’s and individuals to join forces and to take action against disengaged political leaders and big business.

“The Revolution is already begun. The fact of man-made climate change is accepted by most people. Through every walk of life people are changing their values and their behaviour. This continues to build the Revolution. The fight is no longer between the classes or between rich and poor but between the idiots and the eco-conscious.” - Vivienne Westwood.

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Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler have designed together for over 25 years and their work is the source of several collections and accessory lines, carried out together with their design team. For some time until Autumn- Winter 2016/17 the brands first line was titled Vivienne Westwood Gold Label. From AW 2016/17 the line was renamed ‘Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood’ to highlight their work together and the significance of Andreas’ leadership as creative director.

“I have designed with Vivienne for more than 25 years. To add my name is to emphasise and clarify the differences between our lines. It is not a big change to the way we work but it will bring a new direction and I am happy and excited for the future.”
-Andreas Kronthaler

Vivienne Westwood SS17 Press Release by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Culture by Vivienne WestwoodOriginal Source: Vivienne Westwood

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by the British Fashion Council in collaboration with Vivienne Westwood.

All models and photographers have been credited where known.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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